Utne Reader Book Reviews: July-August 2009

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The Road to Nirvana
Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India
by Rory MacLean (Ig Publishing)

Before Allen Ginsberg wrote about his year-and-a-half stay in India in the early ’60s, the subcontinent didn’t take up much space in the Western mind. But like so much in those days, the Western mind was changing, and soon thousands of young seekers were setting off along the road where Ginsberg had posted his existential arrow sign: “Find Thyself, This Way.”

Before long, the old Silk Road had become the “Hippie Trail,” and it changed the world in ways that haven’t been fully appreciated until the publication of Rory MacLean’s wistfully merry Magic Bus: On the Hippie Trail from Istanbul to India.

Nearly 30 years after the trail was cut off by the Iranian revolution, MacLean set out to see what was left of the route, starting at the Pudding Shop restaurant in Istanbul, where travelers piled into smoke-filled buses before rolling east through Iran, Pakistan, India, and finally to Kathmandu, where they stayed while they searched for something like nirvana.

MacLean finds that many traces of the old trail still exist, and he even runs into old travelers looking for the places where they once found themselves, including “Penny,” a woman who claims to be the original flower child. MacLean’s vivid writing shows how much the Hippie Trail changed not only the way we travel (giving us Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, and the budget travel industry), but also the places it passed through and the people who traveled on it. —Frank Bures

Better Bean Counting
The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics
by Riane Eisler (Berrett-Koehler)

When someone says she’s rich in love, it’s often a wry comment on her shaky finances. Author Riane Eisler isn’t joking when she proposes in The Real Wealth of Nations that we begin to value the power of love—specifically the work of caring for others and for the environment. By taking stock of this “human and natural capital,” from mothers to Mother Earth, and figuring it into our business, social, and environmental worlds, we’ll be a healthier society by measures of what really matters. Given the obvious meanness of the unfettered marketplace, maybe it’s not so strange to suggest that we all buy a bigger stake in compassion. —Keith Goetzman

Festering Social Wounds
Righteous Dopefiend
by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg (University of California Press)

Heroin ravages addicted bodies. “Every five to eight hours, organs run amok: The nose drips, bowels burst, eyes burn, skin itches, and bones ache.” Withdrawal is “like someone is scraping your bones . . . 24 hours a day.” The wrenching ethnography Righteous Dopefiend documents a decade in San Francisco’s Edgewater homeless community, populated by addicts with a commitment to heroin that surpasses all other needs. Even a grapefruit-sized, maggot-filled abscess that requires skin grafting can’t deter one of them from injecting. The authors dare you to ignore the subculture in their field notes and arresting black-and-white images, urging that our failed social systems need repairing and we cannot continue to let these outliers remain invisible. —Elizabeth Ryan

Collateral Damage
The Rape Of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum
by Lawrence Rothfield (University of Chicago Press)

The United States stormed into the cradle of civilization six years ago with no plan to protect its cultural heritage, an utter failure that Lawrence Rothfield traces to the earliest days of prewar planning in The Rape of Mesopotamia. This “autopsy of a cultural disaster” catalogs the shocking scope of the looting that despoiled the Iraq Museum as well as the country’s archaeological sites, where an estimated 400,000 to 600,000 artifacts were “ripped from the ground” between 2003 and 2005. “The loss is not just to Iraq but to us all,” Rothfield writes, “because, in a sense, Iraq’s cultural patrimony is also the patrimony of humankind, in which we all share ownership.” —Danielle Maestretti

Utne Reader Approved:

Fans of the Sun will relish The Mysterious Life of the Heart (The Sun), a love-themed anthology crafted from the magazine’s fine archives of intimate prose and poetry. Grab your lover and curl up by candlelight.

“No good idea stays local for long,” writes Jay Walljasper in Less is More (New Society), a smart collection of essays that chant the simplicity mantra without oversimplifying the issues at stake. Many of these ideas seem bound to travel far.

Whether you’re a smoothie fanatic, a meat lover, or a locavore, many of your notions about freshness are shaped by marketing messages and food preservation technology. Fresh, by Susanne Freidberg (Harvard University Press), gets beneath the sheen of those shiny apples.